As one of the first Ghibli titles to reach these shores, Princess Mononoke will no doubt have already become a familiar sight on store shelves. Nonetheless, this repackaged version with more accurate subtitles is now available to us thanks to Optimum’s Studio Ghibli collection.
The movie charts the tale of Ashitaka, a young prince who is injured whilst defending his village from a boar god turned demon. Unfortunately, the wound carries a curse with it; if left unattended, it will seep through his body and kill him. In the hopes of finding a cure, Ashitaka journeys to the western lands, only to find himself caught up in the conflict between a settlement of ironworkers and the ancient forest gods.
“Human civilisation vs. nature’ stories are hardly uncommon, but any cynics expecting yet another tale of cute furry animals being menaced by avaricious humans will find themselves pleasantly surprised by Princess Mononoke. As we follow the adventures of Ashitaka, an outsider whose strong sense of justice ensures that he cannot help but get involved, what we are offered is not a simplistic one-sided view, but a more balanced and developed tale.
On one side we have the ironworkers, as led by Lady Eboshi, a pragmatic woman who cares little for the forest gods, but proves herself anything but cold-hearted by taking in lepers and freeing women from a life of prostitution. Conversely, the forest gods and their followers are far from the usual run of soft, furry animals; these are wild beasts, given something of a human face by the titular “Princess Mononoke’, a young girl named San who was raised by wolves. Both sides have more in common with each other than they’d like to admit, each sharing a stubborn pride as they try to defend their way of life to the detriment of their rivals.
Unfortunately, not all aspects of the film are as well realised; for example, a third faction comprised of samurai raiders seeking to both take over the ironworks and kill the ancient deer god, are not given the depth afforded to the other groups, and come across purely as antagonists included for plot convenience. The closing acts of the film could also have done with being a little sharper; as it stands the pacing is a little uneven, with some elements receiving too much attention, and others too little.
Given the storyline, it would be natural to expect some kind of moral message to go along with it, but refreshingly Mononoke refrains from a heavy-handed approach. Viewers can read any number of messages about the inevitability of change, or the importance of preserving nature into the film, but it is equally possible just to sit back and enjoy the show.
Character-wise, the film offers a group of well-defined personalities centred around Ashitaka and San; the two people who don’t entirely fit into either the world of humanity or that of the forest, but nonetheless give us an insight into both. There isn’t really time for any extensive character development during the course of the film, but what we do see is a slow and steady growth of the lead characters rather than any forced or unrealistic changes of heart.
Visually, Mononoke sets a high standard, with backdrops in particular offering an detailed and impressive set of environments that bring the world of the movie to life. The human character designs follow the familiar Ghibli style, albeit with more of a bent towards period costumes than usual, whilst the animals are given a realistic rather than simplified or anthropomorphised look. The general quality of the animation is evidenced by a liberal sprinkling of fast-paced and fluid action scenes, whilst a solid orchestral soundtrack makes for a high standard of presentation overall.
A slightly darker and more mature outing than the average Ghibli movie, Princess Mononoke is an enjoyable outing that offers an interesting perspective on a well-used storyline. With its generally solid storyline backed up by an impressive quality of presentation, this is a film that can stand well on its own even when all the hype that surrounds it is stripped away.